Take Me Out to the Ball Game — But Pay Me a Living Wage

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Pregame festivities are shown at AT&T Park before the final game of the World Baseball Classic between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Pregame festivities are shown at AT&T Park before the final game of the World Baseball Classic between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in San Francisco, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

It was in The San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888, 125 years ago this month, that there first appeared a poem titled, “Casey at the Bat, a Ballad of the Republic.” In the decades since, “Casey” has become the classic ode to baseball as the all-American pastime; its stanzas once memorized by school kids, its lines recited and recorded by everyone from James Earl Jones to Garrison Keillor. So poignant and evocative is its tale that Albert Goodwill Spalding, 19th century professional pitcher, team owner and co-founder of the sporting goods company that still bears his name, wrote, “Love has its sonnets galore. War has its epics in heroic verse. Tragedy its somber story in measured lines. Baseball has ‘Casey at the Bat.’”

The melancholy account of the vainglorious power hitter Casey stepping to the plate, his Mudville team down 4-2 at the bottom of the ninth with two men on base and two outs, epitomizes baseball as the game that will break your heart, especially in its immortal final lines:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

The poem was written by Ernest Thayer, a college friend of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day who owned the Examiner and the man on whom Orson Welles based Citizen Kane. Thayer used the pen name “Phin,” and was paid five dollars for his masterpiece, or around $125 at today’s prices.

I know of some baseball employees who can relate to that kind of bargain basement salary, and they’re in San Francisco, too. They’re not the A-Rods, Riveras and Pujols who pull down ten million and more. The people I mean are the 800 concession workers who sell hot dogs and beer, serve and clean the restaurants, and cater to the luxury skyboxes at AT&T Park, home of the 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Employed by a South Carolina-based company called Centerplate, their jobs only last the six months of the season and they make but $11,000 a year, right at the poverty line for a single individual in the United States. Their situation is yet another flagrant example of the vast and widening gap created by income inequality in America.

As Dave Zirin at The Nation magazine recently wrote:

“Concession workers at the park earn their $11,000 in a city where a one-bedroom apartment runs $3,000 a month and people are spending near that much to live in laundry rooms and unventilated basements. These same workers, who commute as much as two hours each way to get to the park, have now gone three years without a pay increase. This despite the fact that the value of the team, according to Forbes, has increased 40 percent, ticket prices have spiked and the cost of a cup of beer has climbed to $10.25. This also despite the fact that, as packed sellouts become the norm, the stress and toil of the job has never been greater.”

Job security, health care and pensions are issues as well. ThinkProgress reports:

“Under the current plan, a worker who staffs 10 events in a month receives health care for the next month, but Centerplate wants to increase that to 12 events per month under a new contract, workers said (A Centerplate spokesperson would not confirm that detail). That would make it impossible to obtain health coverage in months like June, when the Giants have just nine home games, and making health care harder to obtain is a major sticking point for the workers.”

Workers hold signs during a one-day strike at AT&T Park in San Francisco on May 25, 2013 against Centerplate, the San Francisco Giants’ food and beverage subcontractor. (Photo courtesy of UNITEDHERE Local 2)

The workers are represented by UNITE HERE Local 2 and on May 11, 97 percent of them voted to authorize a strike. (This does not necessarily mean there will be a strike, but union leaders now have the go-ahead to call one if they think it’s needed.) A one-day walkout was staged at a Giants/Rockies game during the Memorial Day weekend, an action histrionically described by Centerplate spokesperson Sam Singer as a “slap in the face of our nation’s military.” He told George Lavender of the progressive magazine In These Times, “Local 2 has insulted the servicemen and servicewomen and veterans.”

There were long lines at the concession stands. Centerplate bussed in replacement workers for the day, including, In These Times reported, volunteers from non-profit organizations who worked for free in exchange for donations. This is common practice at sports venues to raise money for churches and other charities, but in San Francisco, it undermines the workers’ dispute. The president of Local 2 — who just happens to be named Casey — said, “It’s a real scam. They [Centerplate] make huge savings… They don’t have to do any of the contractual requirements that they have to do for a worker.”

The Giants management is quick to claim that they have no skin in the game — that the workers are paid not by them but by Centerplate. But as Dave Zirin and others point out, 55 cents of every dollar spent by fans at the concessions in the stadium goes into the Giants’ pockets. “Centerplate says talk to the Giants,” one of the workers told Zirin. “The Giants say talk to Centerplate. If we stepped back for five minutes, they’d figure it out after they started to lose all that money. All we’re saying is we want a fair share.”

The team could easily step up to the plate if it wanted to. The Giants’ principal owner is Charles B. Johnson, 80, the multibillionaire chair of the Franklin Resources mutual fund, founded by his father in 1947. He and his wife, Ann, live in the Carolands Chateau, a 65,000 square foot mansion built by the daughter of railway industrialist George Pullman, who notoriously used Federal troops to suppress workers during the Pullman strike of 1894. The Johnsons bought the 98-room property for several million and reportedly spent more than $20 million in its restoration.

The architecture was inspired by a 17th century French design, which in turn was a prototype for Versailles. Republican fundraisers have been held at Carolands, including one for Mitt Romney in May 2012, and Charles Johnson has been a generous contributor to the party and its candidates, including — according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics — a $200,000 donation last year to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, as well as $50,000 to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.

For that same $200,000, you can rent Johnson’s AT&T Park stadium for a day. Recently, millionaire hedge fund manager Mike Wilkins did just that, inviting 100 of his nearest and dearest hedge fund pals to come to the empty ballpark (the Giants were on the road), have a drink at a bar moved out to the playing field, run the bases, and take batting practice with a bullpen pitcher (which costs an additional $5,000 per person and includes “a paramedic standing by”).

They were living the dream, “grown up boys fantasy time,” a source told BuzzFeed. Meanwhile, the men and women who barely scrape by are feeding the fantasy, making and selling hamburgers and fries, peanuts and Cracker Jack, and cleaning up the mess after. If they don’t win, it’s a shame.

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  • Anonymous

    Is this the best capitalism can do? Greed is sinful, disgraceful, disgusting. Greed should be called out for what it is and then confronted. There have been many books written about baseball. Someone should write one about the vendors who have spent many of their wage-earning years working at baseball parks around the country.

  • Anonymous

    And probably the guy with the concession has to pay an astronomical fee for his space, and even charging the $10 for a beer is not making much more than the concession workers. So who? the team owner? is hauling in the cash? Glad I do not like organized sports anyway. I hated team ball games in high school as well. Physical education should focus on life long physical fitness, not watching a couple dozen over paid Peter Pans on the field playing ball, while thousands sit on their rumps swilling beer and eating pink slime dogs.

  • Bob Ziegler

    I’ve always wondered how the concession $$$ were handled at these major-league venues. I knew the poor working stiffs slinging peanuts and suds weren’t getting a cut.
    Team owners like this get public welfare to build their stadiums and it’s just business as usual. /facepalm.

    Also, who owns Centerplate and how does the concession money flow after it’s in their hands?

  • poot

    Do you get a cut of the profit where you work?

  • 3 Dollar Bill

    “In the Soviet Union, capitalism triumphed over communism. In this country, capitalism triumphed over democracy.”
    Fran Lebowitz

  • Dave

    No, but we should!

  • Anonymous

    I have a question I’ve been asking since the 1990s, and I sure would love to see it publicly addressed. Reality: Not everyone can work, due to health or circumstances, and there aren’t jobs for all who need one. What should we do about these Americans, people who are not able to provide for themselves? Currently, we essentially toss them into the dumpster or jail. As a result of Bill Clinton’s policies, severe poverty in the US has actually doubled. Infant mortality rates among the poor have risen, and the life expectancy of our poor has fallen below that of some Third World nations. This seems to be the best that this generation can do, but it might be an interesting change of pace to discuss US poverty. It’s nice to call for job creation — we’ve been doing that for decades now, but it seems to be falling short of meeting the nation’s needs.

  • Norman Hill

    Excellent questions (although I’m not ready put so much of the blame on Clinton).

  • Arianna

    We, here in St. Louis, home of the 11 World Series winning Cardinals team, have the “non profits” or “not for profits” that are contracted with by the vending contractor who works for the stadium. I work with the homeless in our city and was thrilled when we were tapped to provide help for the ballpark as it’s free food safety training and cashier skills etc. for a neglected population. We should have known better. Yes, they get training for free but aren’t paid for the training time. They have to have certain clothes which can be a hurdle for poverty stricken folks, so our organization does the best we can to provide them. Here’s the kicker…..after the city gave the Cards MILLIONS in tax exemptions, a free new ball park (that stays lit all night, every night, no matter what) the land from the old ball park is TIF’d too and has $$$$ condos and eaterys being built on it after a years long wait…..after all this and despite 7$ hot dogs etc. our folks get 30$ for working a game, $40 if they are lead cashier. They have to arrive by 3:45 on game day and work through until usually 11pm and sometimes as late as midnight and sometimes they walk home as the buses are stopped in some areas by that time. You do the math……30:8 is not even $4.00 an hour!

  • Anonymous

    Yet another reason I refuse to go to MLB games…monopolies on food services and then exploiting those who work in these venues.
    “Strike three”, MLB is out!

  • kevin

    who can afford to go to a game? not many

  • Pointofgrille

    Tampabay Rays fan since their first pitch in the majors. Now our owners and Major League Baseball have declared the St Peterburg facility, Tropicana Field, an unfit place to play that is not supported by the local fans. The MANAGEMENT DOES NOT LISTEN to fans concerns and suggestions about the ballpark. They just state their intention to build a new park somewhere else while at the same time complaining about poor attendance. Why would I pay to attend an baseball game owned by people who blame the supporting fans for the woes of their franchise. God only knows how much money they have made off of the Tampa Bay Rays fans while playing the financial games, such as owning professional sports frachises, that only the rich get to play……all the while spending dollars… fans like myself have spent on admission and in-stadium purchases since 1998. The attitude and fingerpointing at the loyal fans by the management of the organization are the problem in this looooooong time baseball friendly community. Not the loyal followers of the team.

  • laserbabe

    they’re just using them until they can arrange work release for prisoners to do it for 58 cents an hour as “work experience.”

  • laserbabe

    do you have your hours deliberately limited so you can’t get healthcare coverage?

  • laserbabe

    the spaces are largely held by near monopolies and they are doing just fine